The Tractor Tavern, housed in a historic Ballard building, is marking its 15th anniversary.
There is a tractor in the Tractor Tavern.
It hangs above the far wall as you walk into the Ballard Avenue haunt, rust-colored and soft-edged, easy to miss in the low light and swirl of music and conversation.
This tractor — a 5- by 8-foot oil painting by local artist and longtime Tractor bartender Dan Amell — could be considered the tractor, because, 15 years ago this month, it gave a name to what’s now one of the longest-lived music venues in Seattle.
On a recent weekday afternoon, owner Dan Cowan and a few Tractor crew members are pressure-cleaning the loading dock behind the club. Inside, a pair of wagon-wheel chandeliers hangs from the ceiling and a cordon of Christmas lights and cowboy boots is strung from a rafter.
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Leased from the Deep Sea Fisherman’s Union, the Tractor is housed in a building erected back in 1902 that reportedly once housed a Scandinavian dance hall and later a string of concert venues such as the Prairie Schooner and New Melody Tavern.
Cowan, a bar owner and restaurateur, took over in August 1993 and took inspiration from Amell’s painting.
Then he began booking zydeco and Celtic bands and holding contra dances — a New England style of folk dance, where people come to learn new steps and socialize.
“It was like trying to find a niche that wasn’t competing with, I don’t know, the Central Tavern and RCKNDY, the Crocodile,” Cowan says, going down the roster of Seattle grunge-era clubs.
Sitting at a table inside the Tractor, Cowan, 50, speaks in a semi-distracted growl. A half-smoked Export cigarette is wedged between his fingers. “It was, ‘This is what everybody else was doing, where is there a hole?’ We didn’t really hit the ground running.”
Back then, Ballard Avenue — and Ballard in general — looked a lot different. “It was a dead zone up here,” Cowan says. “Vacant storefronts, people living in storefronts, some real Podunk-type businesses.” The Tractor, along with Conor Byrne Pub and Hattie’s Hat, was the anchor of the nascent neighborhood.
Within a couple of years, Cowan transitioned from pure folk to alt-country just as that scene was gaining national prominence, thanks in part to Seattle-based No Depression magazine.
“It was all serendipitous the way everything was kinda coming together,” Cowan says. “We were in the perfect spot and a lot of places weren’t booking the Austin scene. But (singer-songwriter) Gillian Welch played here like 12 years ago, Whiskeytown in the early days. In a year or two, things were starting to get an identity as alt-country and roots music of all sorts.”
While the Tractor changed — if only slightly — the neighborhood underwent drastic transition. Development speeded up, and with it came crowds of newcomers.
“Ballard Avenue is not the same anymore,” says local chanteuse Jesse Sykes, who’s played the Tractor since its inception. “It was the hub of a certain kind of community and the Tractor melded into that. It went beyond the confines of the club itself. It trickled out and all along Ballard Ave. For a while it felt like Ballard Ave had that family vibe to it, which is completely gone now. The Tractor felt, and still remains, intact at its emotional core.”
Musician Tim Seely concurs. “I think the Tractor is somewhat immune to that newly emerging persona of Ballard,” says Seely, whose former band, Willis, headlined a Tractor show years ago with openers the Decemberists.
“I think they still retain a lot of the clientele they’ve had, the neighborhood people. They don’t try to be this hip club. There’s not a guy in patent-leather shoes dancing in front of the place trying to get people in on a two-for-one cover.”
The Tractor has gained a reputation as the Northwest’s Mecca for alt-country, but Cowan — and others — insist the tavern is home to more than one style of music.
“It’s not a roots club anymore and it hasn’t been for a long time,” Sykes says.
Maybe so, but the Tractor’s eclecticism accentuates the common roots binding different types of music, from alt-country to indie rock to acoustic folk. It’s that aesthetic, as well as the respect with which the place treats its customers and its artists, that keeps people coming back.
“The rep upholds itself,” says Greg Garcia, who took over booking duties from Cowan in 2007. “It’s almost like a brand. People know what they’re gonna get.”
“The Tractor is probably the most generous venue in town to the artists playing there,” says Jason Dodson, whose country-rock group the Maldives is the Tractor’s unofficial house band. “It’s a privilege to be a part of that, a part of Dan Cowan’s dream. And madness.
“Ballard has changed and grown — that’s how a city works,” Dodson said. “But within that city, there’s certain cornerstones that are the foundation through which all the changes happen. To me, the Tractor has always been there and hopefully always will be.”
“I’ve had the greatest nights of my life there, and some dark nights as well,” Sykes says. “The room hasn’t changed much in all those years. There’s so much emotional history. Friends have had funerals in that room, weddings that we’ve witnessed there.
“It’s not just a place for shows to happen.”
Jonathan Zwickel: firstname.lastname@example.org